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Chemists search for and put to practical use new knowledge about chemicals. Although chemicals are often thought of as artificial or toxic substances, all physical things, whether naturally occurring or of human design, are composed of chemicals. Chemists have developed a tremendous variety of new and improved synthetic fibers, paints, adhesives, drugs, cosmetics, electronic components, lubricants, and thousands of other products. They also develop processes which save energy and reduce pollution, such as improved oil refining and petrochemical processing methods. Research on the chemistry of living things spurs advances in medicine, agriculture, food processing, and other areas.
Many chemists work in research and development. In basic research, chemists investigate the properties, composition, and structure of matter and the laws that govern the combination of elements and reactions of substances. In applied research and development, they create new products and processes or improve existing ones, often using knowledge gained from basic research. For example, synthetic rubber and plastics resulted from research on small molecules uniting to form large ones (polymerization).
Chemists also work in production and quality control in chemical manufacturing plants. They prepare instructions for plant workers which specify ingredients, mixing times, and temperatures for each stage in the process. They also monitor automated processes to ensure proper product yield, and they test samples to ensure they meet industry and government standards. Chemists also record and report on test results. Others are marketing or sales representatives who sell and provide technical information on chemical products.
Chemists often specialize in a subfield. Analytical chemistsdetermine the structure, composition, and nature of substances and develop analytical techniques. They also identify the presence and concentration of chemical pollutants in air, water, and soil. Organic chemists study the chemistry of the vast number of carbon compounds. Many commercial products, such as drugs, plastics, and fertilizers, have been developed by organic chemists. Inorganic chemists study compounds consisting mainly of elements other than carbon, such as those in electronic components. Physical chemists study the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules and investigate how chemical reactions work. Their research may result in new and better energy sources.
Biochemists, whose work encompasses both biology and chemistry, are included under biological scientists elsewhere in the Handbook.
Chemists usually work regular hours in offices and laboratories. Research chemists spend much time in laboratories, but also work in offices when they do theoretical research or plan, record, and report on their lab research. Although some laboratories are small, others are large and may incorporate prototype chemical manufacturing facilities as well as advanced equipment. Chemists may also do some of their research in a chemical plant or outdoors-while gathering samples of pollutants, for example. Some chemists are exposed to health or safety hazards when handling certain chemicals, but there is little risk if proper procedures are followed.
Chemists held about 97,000 jobs in 1994. The majority of chemists are employed in manufacturing firms-mostly in the chemical manufacturing industry, which includes firms that produce plastics and synthetic materials, drugs, soaps and cleaners, paints, industrial organic chemicals, and other miscellaneous chemical products. Chemists also work for State and local governments, primarily in health and agriculture, and for Federal agencies, chiefly in the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture. Others work for research and testing services. In addition, thousands of persons held chemistry faculty positions in colleges and universities. (See the statement on college and university faculty elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Chemists are employed in all parts of the country, but they are mainly concentrated in large industrial areas.
A bachelor's degree in chemistry or a related discipline is usually the minimum education necessary to work as a chemist. However, many, if not most, research jobs require a Ph.D. degree.
Many colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree program in chemistry, 606 of which are approved by the American Chemical Society. Several hundred colleges and universities also offer advanced degree programs in chemistry.
Students planning careers as chemists should enjoy studying science and mathematics, and should like working with their hands building scientific apparatus and performing experiments. Perseverance, curiosity, and the ability to concentrate on detail and to work independently are essential. In addition to required courses in analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry, undergraduate chemistry majors usually study biological sciences, mathematics, and physics. Computer courses are invaluable, as employers increasingly prefer job applicants to be not only computer literate, but able to apply computer skills to modeling and simulation tasks. Laboratory instruments are also computerized, and the ability to operate and understand equipment is essential.
Because research and development chemists are increasingly expected to work on interdisciplinary teams, some understanding of other disciplines, including business and marketing or economics, is desirable, along with leadership ability and good oral and written communication skills. Experience, either in academic laboratories or through internships or co-op programs in industry, also is useful. Some employers of research chemists, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, prefer to hire individuals with several years of postdoctoral experience.
Although graduate students typically specialize in a subfield of chemistry, such as analytical chemistry or polymer chemistry, students usually need not specialize at the undergraduate level. In fact, undergraduates who are broadly trained have more flexibility when job hunting or changing jobs than if they narrowly define their interests. Most employers provide new bachelor's degree chemists with additional training or education.
In government or industry, beginning chemists with a bachelor's degree work in technical sales or services, quality control, or assist senior chemists in research and development laboratories. Some may work in research positions, analyzing and testing products, but these may be technicians' positions, with limited upward mobility. Many employers prefer chemists with a Ph.D. to work in basic and applied research. A Ph.D. is also generally preferred for advancement to many administrative positions. Chemists who work in sales, marketing, or professional research positions often move into management eventually.
Many people with a bachelor's degree in chemistry enter other occupations in which a chemistry background is helpful, such as technical writers or sales representatives in chemical marketing. Some enter medical, dental, veterinary, or other health profession schools. Others choose from a wide range of occupations with little or no connection to chemistry.
Chemistry graduates may become high school teachers, and those with a Ph.D. may teach at the college or university level. However, they usually are then regarded as science teachers, or college or university faculty, rather than chemists. Others may qualify as engineers, especially if they have taken some courses in engineering.
Employment of chemists is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005. The chemical industry, the major employer of chemists, should face continued demand for goods such as new and better pharmaceuticals and personal care products, as well as more specialty chemicals designed to address specific problems or applications. To meet these demands, research and development expenditures in the chemical industry will continue to increase, contributing to employment opportunities for chemists.
Within the chemical industry, job opportunities are expected to be most plentiful in pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. Stronger competition among drug companies and an aging population are among the several factors contributing to the need for innovative and improved drugs discovered through scientific research. Although employment growth is expected to be slower in the remaining segments of the chemical industry, there will still be a need for chemists to develop and improve products, such as cosmetics and cleansers, as well as the technologies and processes used to produce chemicals for all purposes. Job growth will also be spurred by the need for chemists to monitor and measure air and water pollutants to ensure compliance with local, state, and federal environmental regulations.
Because much employment growth of chemists is expected to relate to drug research and development and environmental issues, analytical, environmental, and synthetic organic chemists should have the best job prospects.
During periods of economic recession, layoffs of chemists may occur-especially in the oil refining and industrial chemicals industries. Chemists are vulnerable to temporary slowdowns in automobile manufacturing and construction, end users of many of the products of the chemical industry.
According to a 1995 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary offer for recently graduated chemists with a bachelor's degree was about $29,300 a year; with a master's degree, $38,000; with a Ph.D., $52,900.
A survey by the American Chemical Society reports that the median salary of all their members with a bachelor's degree was $45,400 a year in 1994; with a master's degree, $53,500; and with a Ph.D., $66,000.
In 1995, chemists in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions in the Federal Government earned an average salary of $56,070.
The work of chemical engineers, agricultural scientists, biological scientists, and chemical technicians is closely related to the work done by chemists. The work of other physical and life science occupations, such as physicists and medical scientists, may also be similar to that of chemists.
General information on career opportunities and earnings for chemists is available from:
American Chemical Society, Department of Career Services, 1155 16th St. NW., Washington, DC 20036.
Information on Federal job opportunities is available from local offices of State employment services or offices of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, located in major metropolitan areas.
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